White Frock Imperialism: Collins’ Detrimental Charity

While reading The Woman in White, something that stuck out to me was the effect of Mrs. Fairlie on Anne Catherick as a child. Specifically, Mrs. Fairlie describes in her letter one statement she made to Anne. She writes, “So I arranged, yesterday, that some of our darling Laura’s old frocks and white hats should be altered for Anne Catherick; explaining to her that little girls of her complexion looked neater and better in all white than anything else. She hesitated and seemed puzzled for a minute; then flushed up, and appeared to understand… and said (oh so earnestly!), ‘I will always wear white as long as I live’” (Collins 60-1). This seemed important because when Hartright meets Anne, she is wearing white, and she clearly still recalls that this is due to Mrs. Fairlie’s suggestion. It made me consider the relationship between members of the upper and lower classes in Victorian England; specifically, the pressure on poorer people to imitate the upper class moral standards. In this scene, an upper class woman tells a disadvantaged little girl that she should be wearing white in an effort to improve her appearance, and the little girl holds onto this as an eternal truth throughout her life, acting as though maintaining Mrs. Fairlie’s wishes will bring her happiness or fulfillment.

In the larger context of the novel as a whole, I think this idea is fairly prominent. When Mrs. Fairlie seeks to improve Anne as a project, she is following the imperialist mindset we have discussed in class. She feels it is her responsibility to enforce her own standards of dress, and I think by extension, general behavior and moral conduct. Because of her plentiful resources and ignorance of lower-class reality, Mrs. Fairlie views Anne’s response as a charming devotion, while its effects will continue to spin out of control after Mrs. Fairlie’s departure. I would suggest this is a much smaller-scale version of the chaos that ensues when nations are colonized by Europeans who want to “improve” their morality and gain satisfaction from perceived success. This interaction is also significant because wearing white clothing is in fact not a practical or maintainable state of affairs for most middle or lower-class women, which relates to the difficulty of maintaining the strict social standards and boundaries for people who do not have all the material or educational resources of the upper class.

When I thought about this scene even more, I also began to consider its relation to the parallel drawn between Laura and Anne. Laura is given all the education and white clothing as a child of a wealthy family and turns out to be the ideal Victorian dainty woman. Anne’s experience with these resources produces a nearly opposite result: she is scarred and experiences some intense trauma we do not yet know the details of. I wonder if Collins could be suggesting that while Victorian standards and conventions suit and elevate the upper class, they have a hugely damaging effect on the lower classes. Perhaps he is arguing that if the lower classes do not have appropriate support, they will be confined to their station in a society that requires adherence to such extreme standards prior to admission. I wonder if this novel is in part a statement about the impossibility of social progress without acknowledgement and consideration for the realities of lower class life.